The Biden administration revealed plans Wednesday to rewrite the test to become a U.S. citizen, making it a multiple-choice exam and changing the way applicants must demonstrate their knowledge of English.
In addition to changing the civics part of the test from open-ended answers to multiple choice, officials will ask applicants to study new material to pass, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a regulatory filing.
“The naturalization test is a key step in becoming a U.S. citizen,” said Ur M. Jaddou, USCIS’s director. “We welcome input from — and the participation of — stakeholders who are familiar with this important process as we continue to improve and update our naturalization test, ensuring that it is consistent with industry testing standards.”
Ms. Jaddou’s rewrite would be the third test in less than four years.
The Trump administration announced changes in 2019. The Biden team revoked the changes and returned to the test written by the George W. Bush administration.
Alfonso Aguilar, who oversaw that 2008 version, questioned why the agency was attempting another rewrite.
“I just don’t see any need to change the exam,” he said.
The citizenship test is meant to evaluate an immigrant’s knowledge of U.S. history and government operations and to ensure rudimentary knowledge of reading, writing and the English language.
Reading is tested by having applicants read aloud three provided sentences. Writing is tested by having applicants write down sentences read aloud. Speaking has been evaluated as part of the broader test.
Reading and writing won’t change, but speaking will be formally tested with a series of photographs that the applicant will be asked to describe aloud.
“Applicants will be scored on the ability to respond in English using vocabulary and simple phrases that are relevant to the image,” the agency said.
The photos will be chosen from a set of 40 possibilities. Analysts said that increases the likelihood that some applicants will try to memorize interactions for each image.
On the civics test, applicants are asked open-ended questions and must provide answers. The new test would give them a question with four possible answers and ask them to choose the right one.
USCIS said multiple choice is the “industry standard and best practice.”
The multiple-choice test would be administered by tablet rather than spoken by an examiner. That reduces the interaction that allows examiners to judge an applicant’s English language skills.
The agency said the passage rate for the civics portion — six correct answers out of 10 questions — will remain.
The agency is forming an advisory group to evaluate the test items.
Mr. Aguilar questioned how that would work.
“Who are going to be the experts, and are they going to push a woke agenda?” he wondered.
As far back as 1802, federal law has required applicants for citizenship to show an “attachment to the principles of the Constitution.” The test was enforced in varying ways for much of the country’s history.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the citizenship test became the formalized process it is today.
Fiddling with the citizenship test can be touchy.
Emilio Gonzalez, the director of USCIS in the Bush administration who oversaw the 2008 rewrite, said the goal was to prod deeper engagement with the country’s principles of governing.
Immigrant rights activists accused the Bush team of making the test too tough and predicted a low rate of passage.
In fact, the passage rate ticked up slightly to 91%.
“The current test is a result of a lot of studying, a lot of stakeholder engagement and a lot of professional consultations to make sure we were giving applicants a worthwhile and meaningful test with respect to the definitions and responsibilities of citizenship,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
In 2019, the Trump administration added material and raised the bar for passage to 12 correct answers out of 20 questions.
It also faced complaints that the test was too hard. The Biden administration cited the difficulty as a reason for ditching the test and reverting to the Bush exam.
USCIS figures showed that the passage rate for the Trump administration’s test was 94%.
The latest rewrite will be tested next year in anticipation of a full rollout in late 2024. USCIS said it will seek 1,500 volunteers to take the updated test along with the current citizenship test, which will still control their fate.